Paula Vogel always encourages the students in her MFA playwriting workshop at Brown University to write plays that can be staged for under $100. The exercise is less concerned with teaching her novice playwrights how to negotiate the deplorable state of funding for the arts than it is to get them to rethink the theatrical form.
In one way or another, nearly all of Vogel’s own plays – including Desdemona, The Oldest Profession, And Baby Makes Seven and The Baltimore Waltz – exhibit just such a rigorous rethinking of theatrical forms. (I also firmly believe that, payment to artists excepted, each of these plays could be staged without compromise for less than $100. But that’s another article.) Vogel’s plays are seldom what they appear to be on first reading, but they utilize an exuberant theatricality that subverts naturalistic conventions – and theatregoers’ expectations – at every turn.
Three mountings of The Baltimore Waltz, all of which opened within two months of each other this season, provided a unique opportunity for observing the versatility of Vogel’s work from the point of view of design. The play’s premiere production, a cooperative venture of New York’s Circle Repertory Company and Houston’s Alley Theatre with support from AT&T: OnStage, turned out to be two distinctively different stagings, both supervised by director Anne Bogart and designed by Loy Arcenas; Center Stage of Baltimore followed with a production directed by Michael Greif and designed by Donald Eastman.
Like Angels in America, Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Marvin’s Room, The Baltimore Waltz is part of a growing body of work identified as second-generation AIDS plays. In contrast to the earnest, exhortatory tone of first-generation AIDS plays like The Normal Heart and As Is, these second-,generation works are often angry, seldom sentimental, occasionally abstract and always funny. Angry, unsentimental, abstract, funny – The Baltimore Waltz to a “T”.
On one level, the play appears to be a brittle comedy about a young woman, an elementary-school teacher from Baltimore, who receives the grim news that she is terminally ill with ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease). Knowing that there is no known cure, Anne and her brother Carl, a children’s librarian, go on a whirlwind tour of Europe in pursuit of an unorthodox miracle cure, black-market drugs and uninhibited sexual pleasure.
The reality, however, is something else entirely. As Michael Feingold put it in his Village Voice review of the play, “This transparent absurdity is the mirror image of the actual story being told: Anna is perfectly healthy, her brother Carl is dying of AIDS in a Baltimore hospital (as the author’s brother Carl in fact did); the European trip is one they planned but didn’t take.” For Frank Rich of the New York Times, The Baltimore Waltz is that “rare AIDS play that rides completely off the rails of documentary reality, trying to rise above and even remake the world in which the disease exists.”
The stage directions for The Baltimore Waltz (as printed in the September ’91 issue of American Theatre) indicate that the play takes place in “a hospital (perhaps in a lounge, corridor or waiting room) in Baltimore.” Vogel, however, provides an additional, liberating clue in her introduction to a letter from her brother, written to her shortly before he died, which is printed in its entirety with the script and usually reprinted in the program Here, Vogel describes the Baltimore Waltz as “a journey with Carl to a Europe that exists only in the imagination.”
NEW YORK, Feb. 11 – Circle Rep’s association with The Baltimore Waltz actually began more than a year ago, when the theatre offered Vogel and her director of choice, Anne Bogart, a chance to stage a workshop production of the script is part of its Circle Lab program. Although the workshop allowed Bogart to “test-drive” some of her ideas about the play, surprisingly little of what was seen in the workshop is used in the subsequent production.
the lone set element shared by both is a white curtain, tautly, stretched across the entire width of the stage, which serves variously as front curtain, projection screen and hospital curtain. After Anna and Carl are introduced to the audience in the narrow space in front of this curtain, they fling it back to reveal Arcena’s full set: a sterile, impersonal, contemporary waiting room, pale green in color, with solarium windows and one nondescript, six-foot cough (just the kind one would expect to find in a waiting room). A downstage left door leads to a corridor; another door upstage left opens onto a closet, or perhaps a bathroom, into which the third member of the cast disappears periodically to make costume changes with Irma Vep-velocity.
Although the set contains a good deal of detail – electrical outlets, sprinkler fixtures, wooden handrails, a sound-absorbent tile ceiling, even simulated grime around the baseboards – little about it suggested a hospital waiting room. Little, that is, except for an ominous gurney that sits in the up left corner of the stage.
That item of grim reality not withstanding, it is the fanciful use of the couch which clues the audience that what they are watching is no ordinary trip through Europe. While the waiting room does double duty as a variety of hotel rooms, bistros, cafes and public squares in France, Holland and Germany, the single couch, repositioned at the beginning of each scene, is used to represent assorted double beds, bars, an airport’s security checkpoint, the private compartment of a train, even the Eiffel Tower.
To further emphasize the fantasy, lighting designer Dennis Parichy illuminates the set with a rich, ever-changing array of lush colors, including lavenders, pinks, greenish-blues and salmons – a palette more closely associated with romantic comedies than plays about AIDS. Only near the end of the play, when Anna returns to the hospital to find her lifeless brother on the gurney (now positioned center stage), does Parichy drain the light of all its color. The effect, in tandem with an abrasive buzzer and low rumblings constructed by sound score designer John Gromada, is genuinely shocking.
Like Parichy’s lighting, Walter-Hicklin’s costumes take the fantasy by the throat. Anna is dressed in a full black slip and trenchcoat whenever she isn’t in bed, where she wears only the slip. Except for his appearance at the very end of the play (in what the script describes as “Austrian military regalia”), Carl wears flannel pajamas, a blue blazer and, for the exterior scenes in Europe, a trenchcoat.
The character identified in the script as the Third Man/Doctor impersonates all the characters Anna and Carl encounter on their fantasy tour of Europe, including Harry Lime (the elusive villain from the Carol Reed-Graham Greene thriller The Third Man) American function,tries and various European stereotypes. Hicklin’s costumes for these characters draw the audience deeper and deeper into Anna’s fantasy world. Minor changes, like slapping an official-looking patch on the arm for the Airport Security Guard or adding a brocade vest for the Garcon, are at first made in full view of the audience; after the convention for introducing new characters is securely established, the Third Man is able to make a complete costume change, becoming the little Dutch Boy at Age 50, without it appearing incongruous. This also sets up the audience for Dr. Todesrochein, the last and most bizarre of Anna’s fantasy characters – by the time he makes his entrance, preposterously dressed in a blood-spattered lab coat, thick glasses, ludicrous fright wig and a single black rubber glove, one is prepared to accept almost anything as part of the play’s skewed universe.
HOUSTON, April 8 – While this city’s production of The Baltimore Waltz retains much of the spirit of the New York production, the set has to be completedly redesigned for the Alley’s Neuhaus Arena Stage, which seats the audience on four sides of an approximately 25′ by 25′ acting area. Arcenas’s new set is far less specific than his antiseptic, claustrophobic waiting room at Circle Rep: here there are only two institutional double-hinged doors in opposite corners of the stage and a pair of backless benches, which, like the couch in New York, are periodically repositioned to suggest a change in location. With much of the action reblocked to occur on the diagonal between the doors, the production often appears to be set in a hospital corridor. The gurney is sitting on stage as the audience enters, but it is wheeled out just prior to the first scene and then, carrying Carl, wheeled back in for the end of the play.
Parichy’s lighting has to be rethought in terms of the arena staging, of course, but aesthetically it changes little; Hicklin’s costumes and Gromada’s soundscore are identical.
But there are other important changes: Due to scheduling conflicts, Cherry Jones, Richard Thompson and Joe Mantello (who played Anna, Carl and the Third Man/doctor, respectively) have been replaced by Alma Cuervo, Willis Sparks and Arnie Burton. Since the Houston set has no curtain that can serve as a projection surface, Carl’s slides are shown on two masked screens, one in each of the two corners not occupied by the swinging doors. Finally, while the Circle Rep production used one stagehand dressed as a hospital orderly to assist the three principals with couch, prop and costume changes, the production at the Alley uses two “orderlies.” (The idea for dressing a stagehand as a hospital orderly is Bogart’s; the character does not appear in Vogel’s script.)
Still, audiences in New York and Houston saw basically the same production. The variations are the result of Neuhaus’s arena configuration, which, for example, makes Anna, Carl and the Third Man appear to be addressing the audience more directly and more often. Consequently, the Houston production may be experienced as more intimate, personal and emotional than the one seen in New York; I also suspect that the Houston set, which leaves more to the imagination than did the set used in New York, encourages audiences to take a more active role during the performances. These variations illustrate how a single production, imaginatively staged, can be presented in two very different theatres, be equally effective and still preserve the playwright’s intentions.
BALTIMORE, April 8-Michael Greif takes a more realistic approach to The Baltimore Waltz, but places it within a more abstract setting. Donald Eastman has pared the play’s environment down to a 12-foot white curtain hung from a circular track in the center of the stage, masked in black. By eliminating all architectural detail and then introducing select furniture and props readily associated with either a European hotel or a contemporary hospital, the production simultaneously evokes the fantastic and the concrete qualities of the play.
Anna (Kristine Nielsen), Carl (Jonathan Fried) and the Third Man/doctor (Robert Dorfman) make their initial entrances from under the curtain. When Anna begins her fantasy tour of Europe, the curtain is pulled aside to reveal an elegant double bed and chair, which represent 19th-century hotels and other locales. (The ferris wheel scene, for instance, in which Carl finally meets Harry Lime is staged with the characters standing on the bed.) As Anna’s anxiety about her brother’s condition escalates, more and more items from the sterile, metallic world of the hospital surface in her fantasy. By the time she finally realizes that Carl has in fact died, the hotelroom elements have been completely replaced with those from Carl’s hospital room including a gurney instead of a regular hospital bed.
James F. Ingalls took his cue for the lighting from The Third Man and approaches the production as film noir. This is particularly apparent during the fantasy sequences, in which the light is projected at sharp angles, using venetian blind templates and no overt use of color. Throughout much of the production, the lighting changes in direct response to the sound, a mix of European music and hospital effects designed by Mark Bennett. The sound and light interconnection often makes Anna’s trip through Europe seem like a reaction to or escape from the mostly unpleasant ambiance of the halls of a hospital. Like the lighting and sound, Paul Tazewell’s costumes are pointedly exaggerated and cartoonish: here Dr. Todesrochein’s sinister black rubber gloves reach all the way up his shoulders.
Seeing these three productions of The Baltimore Waltz as well as photographs from the original workshop production, directed by Annie Stokes-Hutchison at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Alaska confirms my conviction that while Vogel’s non-naturalistic script includes both realistic and abstract elements, it is the relationships among the three characters that determines the success of a production. In other words, it is the emotional clarity and intensity with which the characters and story action are presented, rather than the specificity of the setting, which make The Baltimore Waltz such a powerful experience for so many theatregoers.